Beyond the vision: planning for real infrastructure costs

In their joint master plan, Manchester Village and Township
concentrated growth around existing infrastructure.

Manchester pic.jpg

By Paul Montagno, AICP


This article originally appeared in the March/April, 2019 edition of the Michigan Association of Planning’s Michigan Planner magazine.


Beyond the vision: planning for real costs

As many planners know, Michigan’s population has only grown by about 10 percent since the early 80s, yet the urban footprint has nearly doubled. This means we that we have twice as much infrastructure per capita to maintain than we did 40 years ago, which requires a different approach to planning than in decades past. 

Now more than ever, communities must understand the long-term implications of infrastructure expansion. Planners have a key role in helping policy makers gain this understanding by establishing planning processes that carefully examine long term costs related to land use decisions. When using this approach, policy makers, as well as community members, should have a clear understanding of what the financial and administrative impact of different growth patterns types. Ultimately, the goal should be to focus infrastructure development and population densities in areas where you are providing the most benefit per capita, and in turn have more tax dollars available for less infrastructure.

Examples of long-term considerations to address during the planning process

Private roads can have a cost

A new asphalt road has an approximate life span of about 20 years. The road commissions and municipalities who controls roads have been in the practice of maintaining roads for a long time. Our road dollars are now stretched thinner and thinner every year. In some counties in Michigan, the road commissions are no longer accepting new neighborhood roads. That means the neighborhood is responsible for the maintenance and eventual replacement of those roads; however many homeowners associations do not have the capacity to maintain neighborhood roads effectively and efficiently.

Road commissions do annual maintenance such as chip sealing within the first couple of years of paving a road to preserve the life of the road. They have a long history of maintaining roads and understanding the opportunity cost of doing preventive maintenance. When a neighborhood fails to do this type of maintenance, it is likely that the local municipality will receive the complaints yet have limited capacity to address the issue. Additionally, resident’s budgets will be stretched because not only are they paying taxes, they will have ever increasing homeowner association fees assuming the homeowners association is appropriately saving for maintenance.

Pathways should truly connect people and places

The cost of the initial installation of a path may be offset because communities secure grants or require developers to install the portion of the planned pathway system along their development. However, many communities are not planning for and saving for the cost of maintenance or replacement down the line. The average life span of a 10-foot-wide non-motorized path is 15 years. Maintenance costs are estimated to be roughly $6,000 per mile per year. Ideally, a community has a pathway program and will create a maintenance fund that is tied to an asset management program that calculates the true maintenance cost and is projecting the timing for maintenance and replacement.

Before even planning for maintenance costs, however, other questions must be answered to ensure the investment in the asset provides the most benefits. For example, how many people have access to these paths? Are they connecting to only a very few neighborhoods with miles of nothing in between or are running though densely populated areas and providing real connections to retail, job, and entertainment opportunities or park lands?

Sidewalks and infill go hand and hand

There are areas in most communities that have been developed more intensely than others, which have existing infrastructure in the form of utilities, roads, and in some cases, sidewalks. Policy makers should consider how to better utilize that existing infrastructure. Are there land use planning solution in redeveloping these areas or infilling these areas with residential uses as well? Here’s one example of infrastructure that could be better utilized: A sidewalk might wrap around the perimeter of a big box store or a strip center development but rarely get used. More densely planned residential units infilled into that development or within close proximity would add community members to the already developed area would not only use the sidewalks but would help pay for them with their tax dollars. 

Density and utility requirements

Zoning ordinances that have districts with residential densities greater than two dwelling units per acre typically require homes to be connected to a central sewer and water supply. Again, the developers are usually required to install the utilities within their developments. They are also required to extend those utilities to their development. The systems will need maintenance and, in about 50 years, they will require replacement.

If a municipality plans an area for a particular density and plans for utilities in that area, they will be obligated to allow for the development of that area. Without additional growth management tools, new development often is not going to be immediately next to the areas that are already developed. It might be in a farm field or wooded lot that is two or five miles from the last neighborhood or commercial center that was built. Even though the developer will pay for extending utilities, now you have five more miles of sewer that is the long-term responsibility of the community.  Maybe a package treatment plant is allowed to be built to provide sewer capacity for a single neighborhood, which would be the responsibility of the homeowners association unless it fails and then the local government could be forced to take over the control and the financial responsibility of the plant.

Administrative costs should not be forgotten

In addition to long-term maintenance costs, there are other costs to consider. As the infrastructure grows and the population of a community grows, the need for services grow too. Not only would a community need a bigger department of public works, but they’d need additional administrative services and the staff that goes along with those. An expanded town hall may be necessary to provide such services and house the additional staff. Police and fire protection must be increased. Additional polling locations to facilitate more voters might be necessary. The list goes on.

Asset management and capital improvement programming are essential

An asset management program used to track the life of a community’s infrastructure is a critical tool when maintaining municipal infrastructure and creating an annual capital improvement program and coordinating projects. If a community can understand the condition of different elements of its infrastructure, it can charge the appropriate user fees and taxes and save for maintenance or replacement. It can also save costs by coordinating projects. For example if staff are aware that a road and a water line are both coming due for an upgrade, they can plan to do both projects at one. However, asset management tools are reactive in that they manage assets that already exist as opposed to evaluating the cost before they are installed in the first place.

Enhancing the Planning Process

The same technology used in assets management can be applied during the planning process before infrastructure is built. Modeling can be done to determine the infrastructure needs for particulate uses. Then using similar tools to estimate the timing and cost of maintenance for those systems, a community can understand the true long-term cost implications of creating new infrastructure. As they work to update their future land use plans, transportation plans and planned utility areas, planners must impart on policy makers the need to consider how these changes may affect the community.

Using models and projecting costs as well as administrative service needs, planners can create a narrative that helps to reveal the implications of a land use plan. Future land use plans can no longer be broad-brush plans. We must use the sophisticated tools and data we have gained from years of planning and development experience to demonstrate the true cost of development in terms of financial requirements as well as requisite changes in administrative functions and ultimately the character of communities. With these tools and understanding, policy makers and community members will have the information they need to make better land use and infrastructure development decisions.